John Rosemond July 2016 Columns
Copyright 2016, John K. Rosemond
Roll With Young Adult's Self-Absorption
Q: What can we reasonably expect of our 18-year-old daughter when she comes home on weekends from her summer job? She usually heads straight to her boyfriend's family’s home and rolls in around 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday night. We'd love to have a family meal with her. Do we say, "Dinner is at 6 o’clock and it would mean a lot to us if you’d join us," and let it go at that or should we insist that she have at least one evening meal with us? Finally, she comes through like a hurricane, runs around seeing all her friends and departs leaving her room a mess—dirty clothes on the floor, items that could pose a danger to our dog; and just basically inconsiderate all around. We’ve spoken to her but it’s gone in one ear and out the other.
A: In a perfect world your daughter would come home on Friday evening, have dinner and spend the evening with you, pick up with her boyfriend on Saturday after lunch, come home that evening before midnight, do her own laundry, and leave behind a tidy room when she tearfully departs on Sunday. In other words, in a perfect world your daughter would not be a somewhat typically self-absorbed young adult. She would be grateful, respectful, considerate, and have her priorities in proper order.
In an even more perfect world, you would be able to gently persuade your daughter to your point of view and if that didn’t work, enforce your expectations upon her with some combination of consequences. She would then see the error of her ways, apologize, promise to be more sensitive, and never give you a moment’s problem ever again.
But as you are well aware, the perfect world of the previous two paragraphs does not exist. Furthermore, a case could be made (therefore, I will make it) for self-absorption being a normal reaction to the combined excitement of freedom, some degree of financial independence, adult legal status, and young love. Based on her entrepreneurial bent, I predict that unlike more than one-third of her generation (millennials), your daughter will not come back home to live with you after college. That deserves a great big “Hoo-Hah!” if anything ever did.
You have to decide what sort of relationship you want with your daughter from this point on. It can either be tense, bumpy, and conflict-ridden or relaxed, smooth, and peaceful. I will assume you’d prefer the latter, so here are two things to consider:
First, the behavior you’re seeing from your daughter at this point in her life is temporary. She is justifiably intoxicated with the novelty of her new life situation. Given that she is obviously not a wild, irresponsible person, that will all settle down in due time.
Second, whether the relationship from this point on is bad or good is pretty much up to you. You can make a big deal of her self-absorbed behavior or you can roll with it and let it run its course.
I strongly recommend rolling with it.
"Because I Said So"
One of the more powerful parenting memes to emerge from the parenting revolution of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was “Children deserve reasons.” To large degree, that was a reaction to the previous parental policy of answering “Why? and “Why not?” with “Because I said so.”
To my knowledge, no one has ever explained in non-sentimental terms exactly how it benefits children for adults to give them reasons for the decisions they make. As for the sentimental reasons—as in, “it makes them feel respected”—they are, well, sentimental. How does one go about determining that a child feels respected, anyway? He/she likes what you do?
The fact is that “why?” and “why not?” are not requests for information. If they were, children would occasionally agree with the information given. But they don’t. Instead, they take the information and form an argument with it. Need I point out that one hundred percent of said arguments are counterproductive and many lead to very regrettable outcomes?
Second fact: Said matter-of-factly, “Because I said so” is simply an affirmation of the legitimacy of parental authority. If—as parenting sentimentalists claim—it was psychologically harmful, everyone in my generation would have suffered emotional collapse by age five.
Third fact: As grown-ups, children will hear variants of BISS from employers, government officials, military officers, and others in positions of authority. As such, parents do children a grave disservice by leading them to believe that authority figures are obligated to explain themselves—the very complaint I hear most from folks who employ or supervise millennials.
A reader has suggested that since BISS has been largely absent from our parenting speech for nearly fifty years, I should provide parents with a script for its use. So, here goes:
Child: “But why can’t I?” (Substitute “Why do I have to?” or “Why not?”)
Parent: (Said calmly, matter-of-factly, without emotion.) “Because I said so, that’s why.”
“But that’s not a reason!”
“That’s arguable; nonetheless, it’s the only reason I’m going to give you.”
“What’s argue-bubble or whatever that word is mean?”
“It means I’m not going to argue with you.”
“But why can’t I?”
“I’m also not going to repeat myself.”
“But Billy’s mom says it’s okay!”
“You haven’t noticed?”
“I am not Billy’s mother.”
“Ugh! Right! And I wish you weren’t mine!”
“Dear child, the feeling is sometimes mutual, but only temporarily so on my part.”
“I don’t even understand what you’re talking about sometimes.”
“That’s why I’m the boss.”
Surely, this hypothetical child is temporarily unhappy. In that regard, here’s a fourth fact: Children do not know what is in their best interests. Fifth fact: They need adults who are clear on exactly that.
3 Rules for Taking Kids to Restaurants
The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Daniel Eddy, a New York City chef, on how to have a mutually-successful experience with a young child in an upscale restaurant (“How to Take Your Kids Out to Eat and Actually Enjoy the Experience,” July 14, 2016). WSJ obviously thinks the fact that being a chef qualifies one as an expert the subject; it seems to me, however, that a waitperson would have the better perspective.
Eddy’s first advice is to time the experience so that it coincides with the child’s usual mealtime. That seems like good common sense. Then, he says, prep the child for the experience so as to “build some excitement.”
Speaking as one who travels for a living and eats many evening meals in nice eateries, I do not appreciate having an excited child, much less parents who are trying to help a child have an exciting experience, sitting within fork-throwing distance of me in a restaurant. Nice restaurants are not for having exciting experiences. They are for having calm, and perhaps even stimulating (but not exciting) conversation, over a well-prepared meal, equally well-served.
To summarize the full extent of Eddy’s advice, a parent-child restaurant experience should be one-hundred percent child-focused. Parents should even prepare for the possibility the child will become restless by bringing along toys and books—NEW toys and books, mind you, so the child will be excited by them. I am reminded of the time my wife and I were seated next to a family of four in an upscale restaurant in San Francisco. The two young children became restless, so the parents pulled out a portable DVD player. My wife and I ate the rest of our meal to the accompaniment of the soundtrack from a popular animated film. Then there was the time on Kauai when two young and restless children were allowed to stand on their chairs and serenade the rest of the patrons. And the time in Atlanta when two restless children began skating through a restaurant on wheelie shoes while their parents sat at the table, oblivious.
Mr. Eddy is like too many parents these days: His over-focus on his child renders him oblivious to the comfort level of others. The mere fact that a child might become restless in a restaurant is reason enough to leave the child at home with a sitter. And if one cannot obtain a sitter, then call the restaurant and cancel. Or go to Chuck E. Cheese’s where, according to its website, “a kid can be a kid!”
Mr. Eddy obviously does not understand that the very parent who brings things with which to entertain a young child in an upscale restaurant is the very parent who should not have brought the child in the first place. He does not understand because he is the parent in question.
My eminently commonsensical advice, in three parts: (1) Children should not go to nice restaurants until they have learned proper table manners. The place to teach such manners is at home. My wife and I insisted upon proper at home table manners because, as we told our kids from early on, “You are in training to eat in nice restaurants and other people’s homes.” (2) A restaurant experience should not be child-focused. Rather, children in restaurants should be, for the most part, observers, students. That is their place in the world, after all. (3) The purpose of taking a child to a nice restaurant should not be—as Mr. Eddy suggests—to help the child have fun but to help the child learn how to properly act in a restaurant.
Medicine Doesn't Cure Misbehavior
Q: Our son is a rising second-grader at a private school. Last year, his behavior was often disruptive and sometimes even downright defiant—problems his first grade teacher did not have with him. At home, we have no more than typical “boyishness” — nothing approaching serious. Nonetheless, at the school’s request we took him to a private counselor they recommended. When that did no good, the school began insisting he had a disorder and wanted him put on medication — something we will not do. Anyway, we want to take preventive steps to head this off before it becomes an issue in the coming school year. Can you give us any advice?
A: I’ve heard variations on this story more times than I can count. A child — usually a boy — develops a classroom behavior problem. The school recommends counseling with a counselor with whom they have a working relationship. Despite the counseling, the child’s behavior continues to be a problem and may even worsen, at which point the counselor (and/or school) claims the child has a behavior disorder and the school begins pushing for medication.
First, there is no scientific validity to the notion that persistent misbehavior of one sort or another constitutes a “disorder” that arises from a so-called biochemical imbalance or some other equally unprovable biological cause. Second, compelling evidence supporting the reliable efficacy of “talk therapy” with children does not exist. Third, many parents have told me that having their misbehaving children talk to counselors or therapists resulted in either no improvement or things getting considerably worse. Fourth, if your son had a disorder, it would not be confined to a specific teacher. Fifth, a behavior problem that is confined to a specific teacher is almost surely a teacher problem. Sixth, a school, whether public or private, is not likely to admit that.
Now, it is my bounden duty to tell you that most folks in my profession — child and family psychology— would not agree with the above six points. If you have misgivings about my perspective, I encourage you to seek a third opinion. The more information you collect, the better.
The unfortunate reality is that by the time a school, working in conjunction with a child mental health counselor, identifies a child as having a (unverifiable) behavior disorder and begins pushing for putting said child on medication, too much water has gone over the dam, so to speak. Sometimes, if the option of transferring the child to another school — giving him a fresh start — is available, that has been my recommendation. Many behavior disorders have been cured by a longer morning ride to school. At this point, however, I want you to do nothing more than hold that thought.
Since a new school year is imminent, I recommend you simply wait and see what effect a new teacher has on the situation. I would hope that under the circumstances the school would assign your son to a veteran teacher who is easy-going but also a seasoned classroom disciplinarian. Given that last year’s problems were not typical of your son, I would predict that a new teacher will be all that’s needed to get your son back on track.
If, however, the problems persist, then I recommend what I term the “nuclear option.” That would involve taking away all privileges (including birthday parties and sleepovers), toys, electronics, and after-school activities until your son’s classroom behavior returns to first-grade standards and remains steady for at least four weeks. The key is to put these measures into effect immediately. As is said, in hesitation all is lost.